By Shu Min Xu
Lin Hwai-Min is a slight man with a quiet manner. He is humble as he greets his fans. He is the founder and artistic director of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater. While having the opportunity to live and study in Manhattan, he told a story of how he loved the energy of the city, the vibe it radiated then in the early 70s, and the magic of being young. Riding out on his bicycle every afternoon after several straight hours of practice and rehearsals – the sun shining down on the streets of Manhattan – Lin Hwai-min would enjoy the happy hours at the most luxurious hotels of Midtown. As a poor student living in Manhattan, happy hour always had the best, complimentary food and conversation. It was such a freeing time in American history for this man from Taiwan.
In his time in New York, a dance teacher once said that it would be impossible for a Chinese dancer to compare to a European dancer in traditional ballet – Chinese legs are simply too short. A little more background, traditional ballet depends almost entirely on the lines that the dancer draws for the audience by the dancers’ own muscles. Long legs, long arms, long necks, and pointed feet- all help create the audience’s perception of length, drawing their eyes up and out. In general, these lines project the dance upwards and outwards, filling every space on the stage.
Eastern dance is rooted in every breath, bone, and every ounce of energy (qi) within the body. In contrast to traditional ballet, Chinese dance forms are round and rooted to the ground bringing strength up from within the earth. Lin Hwai-min spoke of the difference between Eastern and Western mentalities being evident in basic concepts like where one looks for the sun. In the Western world, people look for the sun in the sky, turning the head upwards. In the Eastern world, we look for the sun on the ground and in the earth. As a culture, we Chinese have an obsession with round shapes and the completeness of all things round.
Returning to Taiwan, Lin Hwai-min was able to change the perception of the Chinese dancer by relying on traditional Chinese concepts of calligraphy, mythology, and art with the creation of Cloud Gate Dance Theater. These were the building blocks that he drew upon to grow the dance troupe, using the human body to mimic the strokes of Chinese calligraphy. A dear friend and well-known calligrapher, Tong Yang-tze painted the indi- vidual characters that Lin Hwai-min used to choreograph the dances.
The emotions behind the calligraphy and the dance were drawn from everyday life. After the events of 9/11 and then the SARS outbreak in Taiwan, emotions were bubbling over. Tong Yang-Tze materialized these turbulent feelings on white paper with black ink. The Cloud Gate Dance Theater reached out to the communities in Taiwan to heal their wounds through dance by volunteering their services. Whether on paper, in the community, or on stage, each artist found a way to deal with the uncontrollable events surrounding them.